‘Yesterday’s ball was marvelous,” the French painter Horace Vernet wrote to a friend in 1843. Vernet, in St. Petersburg to execute portrait commissions, was amazed by the lavish, gem-encrusted costumes of his fellow guests, the gentlemen as well as the ladies, at the Winter Palace. “During the dancing and simply out of the crowding, the jewelry broke and you had to keep stepping on pearls and rubies. You had to see this with your own eyes to believe it.”
This beautiful book, Russian Splendor: Sumptuous Fashions of the Russian Court, by Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovsky, with contributions by Georgy Vilinbakhow, Evilina Tarasova, Tamara Korshunova, and Nina Rarasova, presents the story of those vanished one-percenters, the Russian sovereigns and their courtiers. The garments they wore—ball gowns, uniforms, masquerade costumes, wedding dresses, church vestments—most of them very fragile, were recently brought out of storage to the Hermitage Museum, once the Winter Palace of the czars, and photographed in the rooms where many of them were first worn. This book features a plentiful selection of photographs and a history written, brilliantly, by four curators of the museum’s historical costumes department, who locate the costumes in the life of the court and its ceremonials: religious holidays, dynastic state occasions, military parades, theatrical performances, balls, and masquerades. These events were designed to impress upon Russians and foreigners alike the glory of the empire and of the Romanov lineage.
The narrative is wonderfully enriched by quotations from the memoirs and letters of courtiers and visitors who recorded moments from the lives of royal and aristocratic personages. We learn, for example, that the Empress Elizabeth owned more than 15,000 dresses and that in 1744 she gave a series of masquerade balls, commanding men to come in women’s clothing and women in men’s, because she was tall and heavy but had beautiful legs, so the male costume suited her.
The center of all this activity was the czar, whose person was distant, approachable only to an elite few. But on occasions when he was intent on demonstrating his oneness with the people, he was surprisingly accessible. One of the most popular of those occasions was the Epiphany ceremony, when the whole town turned up to cheer the sovereigns and to see the blessing of the water. People scooped up the holy water through a hole in the ice or even plunged into the Neva to be cleansed of sin or cured of illness. Mothers dipped their infants into the river, “and sometimes these poor victims slip out of their hands and drown,” wrote another visiting French painter, Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, but the little ones became instant angels, so it wasn’t considered a tragedy.
Almost everybody at court loved dancing. After the suicide of the Austrian Grand Duke Rudolf in 1889, a scheduled ball, rather than being canceled, became a black ball. All the ladies were in mourning: black dresses, fans, gloves, slippers, and stockings—a sea of black on which their white diamonds and pearls sparkled and glowed as they waltzed.
And they loved dressing up. Masquerades were extremely popular throughout the 19th century, with courtiers disguising themselves as European knights, Chinese grandees, or Russian historical figures. At the last great court ball held in the Winter Palace, in 1903, the Empress Alexandra—one of the few who hated balls, and Petersburg social life generally—wore the costume of an 18th-century czarina. Her dress dripped emeralds, and her earrings were so heavy she could hardly hold up her head.
A few short years later, the empress and her family would be slaughtered in a cellar in Yekaterinburg. Their killers’ bullets and bayonets ricocheted off the diamonds, pearls, rubies, and emeralds sewn into their petticoats. The unthinkable had come to pass. The glorious masquerade was over.